Bill McSwain, a lifelong West Chester resident and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up “southern” in Chester County; the lessons he learned competing on the tennis and wrestling teams at Henderson High School; and being inspired to constantly push himself by his fellow Ivy League students at Yale.
McSwain also discussed his four years in the Marine Corps and how they’ve influenced his life; his decision to attend law school; the people who saw promise in him; and why he’s considering a run for Governor of Pennsylvania.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the second of two children in Philadelphia and moved to West Chester when I was one year old, where I spent the rest of my childhood and where I live today.
Where are your parents from?
My mom is from rural Virginia and my dad is from rural North Carolina. They met when my dad was a Presbyterian minister in Virginia. After they got married, my dad wanted to make a career change and my parents came north so that my dad could attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work.
That must have been quite a change for your parents?
Yes, my parents are from very small, southern towns – my mom was actually raised on a working farm – so it was a culture shock for them to move north and live in a big city. When we would visit family in North Carolina and Virginia when I was a child, I always felt that I was stepping into a different world because of how different my upbringing was in the Philadelphia area.
My parents are culturally southern. They sound southern, they love southern food, and they have southern manners – they don’t try to rush anybody, and they are very polite. My mom, in particular, tried to instill southern manners in me, so I guess I’m sort of a combination of North and South.
Did your mom work?
Yes, my mom was a home economics major at Radford University in Virginia and worked as a dietician before I was born. When my sister and I were very young, my mom was home with us, but later my mom had a number of different jobs In West Chester and spent many years working in the Guidance Counselors office at West Chester East High School.
What memories do you have of growing up in West Chester?
I have great memories! West Chester was – and is – a wonderful place to grow up. I grew up on the north side of West Chester, towards Exton. Back then, the big place to hang out was the Exton Mall. Now, the mall is almost extinct.
The West Chester Borough, on the other hand, wasn’t really a place where I hung out. The Borough didn’t have a renaissance until the Iron Hill Brewery came in at the corner of High and Gay Streets in the 1990s. From there, other restaurants started to open, as well as art galleries and other shops. The Borough always had the two anchors of being the county seat and having West Chester University, so it made sense for the Borough to eventually thrive. But the West Chester Borough that my kids have experienced is a very different borough than the one I knew as a kid.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I played a lot of neighborhood sports, and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I have great memories of playing baseball for many years in the Exton Little League. I played a lot of tennis and was on the tennis team at West Chester Henderson High School. I still enjoy playing tennis. I was also on the Henderson wrestling team. I learned a lot of important lessons in wrestling.
What did you learn from wrestling?
It taught me mental and physical toughness. Wrestling teaches you pain tolerance and how to suffer. It teaches you how to push through barriers. Once you know how to suffer without letting it bother you too much, you can accomplish an awful lot in life.
Wrestling also teaches you humility: it’s just you and your opponent out there on the mat. There’s nowhere to hide and losing a wrestling match can be a very humbling experience.
What sport were you best at?
I was always best at sports that required endurance. In college, I ended up trying a new sport – rowing. I had no previous experience with rowing, but I tried out for the team as a freshman and fell in love with it. It’s a sport that rewards hard work and dedication. It was a big part of my college experience.
As an adult, I have enjoyed various endurance-related activities, like running and biking. I’ve run several marathons. Soon after college, I biked across the country (from Oregon to North Carolina) with one of my bests friends. I’m always up for an adventure, especially if it has a physical component. Sometimes my wife jokingly refers to me as Forrest Gump.
Did you have any jobs when you were growing up?
My first significant job was delivering the Daily Local News in my neighborhood. Back in those days, I would get home from school, and the papers would be stacked up outside my house for delivery in the afternoon. I’d put the newspapers in my satchel, and I’d walk my neighborhood and deliver the paper to each individual home.
I also had the responsibility of collecting the subscription money from my customers. Once a month, I would have to pay the Daily Local for the papers. Whatever was leftover, I was able to keep as my compensation. So I was only paid when I was able to collect from my neighbors.
What did you learn from being a paperboy?
It taught me responsibility and customer service. And it was also a good introduction to how to handle money — I really had to plan ahead in order to keep up with my collections.
Where did you end up going to college?
I attended West Chester public schools and graduated from Henderson High School in 1987. I always enjoyed school and worked hard at it. I didn’t really have my heart set on any particular college, so I cast a wide net to see where I could get in. I was fortunate enough to be accepted at Yale.
I had a great experience at Yale. I was on the rowing team for four years. I majored in economics and always challenged myself academically. I made lifelong friends. If I were to try to sum up the experience, I would say that Yale exposed me to excellence. Of course, I had received an excellent education in West Chester, as well, but in college, I was surrounded by people who were constantly pushing themselves, in all kinds of endeavors. That can be an intoxicating environment.
I drew inspiration from college, but it didn’t change who I was. I kept the values that I learned from my upbringing. I’ve always held on to those values, and it’s a big reason why I eventually came back to West Chester to settle down and raise a family.
Where does your drive to excel come from, Bill?
Honestly, I’m not sure. It just comes from inside me. I didn’t grow up in a family that pushed me – nobody was telling me what to do or even critiquing me in any way. My drive has always come from within, and it’s been that way since I was a kid. I think it’s also related to my independence. I’m a self-starter and I listen to my own inner compass. I know who I am, and I’m comfortable with that. Generally speaking, I don’t look to outside influences to tell me who to be or what to do.
When was the first time you recognized that about yourself?
It was always there, but something that I just took for granted and didn’t think about that much. Sort of like breathing, I guess! But it was probably my decision to join the Marine Corps that made me go through the type of self-examination that made me understand my motivations and values.
What led to your decision to join the Marine Corps?
After I graduated from college, I worked in a two-year investment banking analyst program. It was a good experience to see that world, but I also knew at the end of the two years that I had to do something different.
I had always been patriotic and appreciated the freedoms and opportunities that I had as an American. I wanted to give back in some way. Joining the Marines wasn’t the typical path for an economics major from Yale, but I felt that it was true to the person I was inside. I felt drawn to it.
That decision might have been the moment when I was the most honest with myself, and it set me on a path that I’m very glad I chose. My four years in the Marine Corps has probably influenced me more than anything else in my life.
I lived my values and came to understand how important and fulfilling that was. I learned valuable lessons in leadership. I was an infantry lieutenant and I commanded a scout/sniper platoon. I made great friends that I have kept for life. Most of all, I served the country that I love and it set me on a path of lifelong public service.
Why did you go to law school after the Marines?
I was always curious about the law. I wasn’t ready to go to law school right out of college, but I was hungry to go back to school after my years as a Marine. I attended Harvard Law School, which was similar to my experience in college in that I was surrounded by classmates who were competitive and who pushed themselves pretty hard.
Law school appealed to me for a lot of reasons. I was drawn to the intellectual rigor and I also wanted to be a federal prosecutor one day. I saw being a prosecutor as a way to continue in public service. I also wanted to be a part of something that I considered the backbone of our society – our legal system is the primary reason why the United States is the most successful, economically powerful, fairest, and freest society in the history of the world.
And on a personal level, I love stories. Every court case is a series of opposing stories. I thought it would be fascinating to work in a profession where I could immerse myself in stories.
Who were the people who saw something in you and opened doors for your success?
My first boss in investment banking, Doug Baird, had a big influence on me. He was a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my dreams. He is still a great friend to this day. Sometimes all it takes is one person believing in you.
John Soroko, my law partner at Duane Morris, has had a tremendous influence on my life. John and I met many years ago and we share many interests, including politics. He is the person who encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring to become U.S. Attorney. He has been a great friend and mentor and an inspiration to me in my legal and political careers. I owe a lot to him.
My first job out of law school was as a judicial clerk for Judge Marjorie Rendell on the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Rendell has been a close friend and a mentor to me throughout my legal career. She taught me a lot about our legal system and the proper role of a judge. She was married to Ed Rendell at the time and has served as the first lady of both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Politics is a part of her life, and she’s a Democrat, but when she decides a case, she puts politics aside and is always neutral and fair. As a Judge, her only concern is figuring out what the law is and then applying the law to the facts to the case. Seeing that as a young lawyer had a profound influence on me.
Why are you running for Governor?
I’m not officially running yet, but I expect to make an announcement relatively soon. I have formed a Political Action Committee, called Freedom PA, which is helping me to prepare for a possible campaign.
On a very basic level, I love public service. I believe in it. It’s why I became a Marine, and it’s why I served as an Assistant U.S. attorney, and then later served as U.S. Attorney.
If I were to run for Governor, it will be because I love Pennsylvania. I have had the opportunity to live the American Dream here, and I want to provide opportunities for others to pursue that dream in our Commonwealth. I want our Commonwealth to be strong from one side to the other. I think we need to focus on three areas – the economy, education and public safety – in order to achieve our potential as a state. We are underperforming in those areas right now, and have been for quite some time, and I think that our next Governor should dedicate himself or herself to changing that.
A Governor is an executive position – a Governor sets priorities, assembles a staff, holds people accountable, and most importantly, sets the example. A Governor is a leader. I have executive experience as a U.S. Attorney, doing all of those things. I think my professional background and values have prepared me for this moment.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the Governorship?
I would bring the leadership qualities that I learned as a Marine. Marines lead from the front, lead by example, never ask their troops to do anything that they wouldn’t do themselves, are mission-oriented and always put the needs of the unit they are leading ahead of their own, personal needs. The Marine Corps core values are honor, courage, commitment. As Governor, I would try to live those values every day.
One of the things that gets drilled into you as a Marine officer is that you have a responsibility to take care of the people in your unit – to take care of the enlisted Marines that are in your charge. For example, one of our traditions is that when we’re in the field, the most junior Marines always eat first. An officer would never go to the front of the line. Officers eat last. I’ve always tried to bring that leadership mentality to my career as a lawyer and public servant – I have a job to do, and that job is looking out for others, not looking out for myself.
You’re traveling the state and talking to people. What’s been the biggest surprise on that trail so far?
When you travel all over the Commonwealth, you quickly realize how big it is! We have a huge, diverse state – and one that is purple, politically. Maybe the most purple state in the country: we have red areas, blue areas, and plenty in between. We are very diverse in geography and demographics. And we are economically diverse. For example, natural gas production is a big part of the economy in our western and northern regions, but not so much in the southeast. I love the diversity of our Commonwealth — it is part of our wonder and what makes us such a potential powerhouse.
What do you do in your free time, Bill?
Most of all, I enjoy spending time with my family. I’ve been married for 25 years to my wife, Stephanie. We actually met in the fourth grade, at Mary C. Howse Elementary School in West Chester. But we didn’t date until after college.
We have four children – three boys and a girl. Our oldest son graduated from college last year; our second oldest son just finished his sophomore year of college; our daughter just graduated West Chester Henderson High School this year; and our youngest son just finished his freshman year of high school.
Family keeps me busy. My wife and I both have one sibling, and we thought it would be fun to try to have a bigger family. We feel very blessed to have four children who are thriving.
I also love to exercise and take active family vacations. For example, we love to ski as a family.
Do you read much?
I love to read. I wish I had more time for it. I mostly read non-fiction and I enjoy biographies, in particular. I’m a huge admirer of George Washington and love to read about him and the other Founders. I usually have some sort of military book that I’m reading.
Recently, I read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Marlantes was a Marine in Vietnam. The book is fiction, but it’s based on his experiences in Vietnam. The book resonated with me because of its authenticity about the way Marine units operate, and it’s also beautifully written. I recommend it to anyone who likes military history, or just a good story.
Finally, Bill, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received was from my mom. My mom would tell me to “never return evil with evil.”
The word “evil” is in the southern vernacular. If someone did me wrong, was cruel or unfair to me, she told me to rise above that and not be influenced by evil in any way.
What always stuck with me was the matter-of-fact way she said it – and lived it. I saw her example. My mom is the most genuinely good person that I’ve ever known. I’ve always tried to rise above any evils that I’ve encountered or that have been directly towards me. Certainly, being a prosecutor, I saw a lot of evil. And now that I’m thinking about jumping into politics, there will be more evil coming my way. But I’m ready for it. If I run for Governor, I’ll focus on the positive and be a happy warrior. I’ll remember what my mom taught me.